Cycle Touring – aches and pains

During my first big cycle tour back in 2016 that took me up and around Scotland, I experienced a variety of aches and pains along the way, beginning with some concerning chest pain that came about following the first night’s sleep in my small tent. Planning a trip yourself or simply want to woe with me in my troubles, then read on! (This is not intended as a moan about issues, more about a reflection for learning and improving).

The chest

I wasn’t certain what caused it but I concluded it was the crouching manoeuvre I had done to get in and out of that tent that had done it, but I also considered I had pulled something on that first leg of my trip due to riding a heavier bike than I was used to (it taking more upper body strength, particularly when climbing hills or stopping and starting in starting in traffic), or even that it may have been something more serious like a touch of pneumonia since that first 50 miles and that whole day first had been spent in the rain and I had got wet through – I simply woke up and felt that pain very early on. Not to be a worrier and certain the issue would sort itself out if I was careful I continued on; I had absolutely no thought about stopping my trip there and then, not unless the issue got worse rather than better. It did get better but quite slowly, taking a good few days, if not a whole week to really disappear; it’s hard for the body to recover from something like this when you’re still putting such demands on it.

There were certainly a few other aches and pains I experienced on that trip once the chest pain subsided, but other pains often remain hidden while a more severe one plagues ones mind.

On my second big, and most recent trip there were certainly some aches and pains again to monitor. While you don’t want to be too focused on them I certainly don’t think it’s good to ignore them entirely. I’m not one for pain killers since I avoid medication, but coffee is something that I realise does work well for me to shut out the pain, and with something like a passing headache that you can’t ignore, by the time the coffee has worn off the pain has gone or you’ve simply forgotten about it. If you regularly consume a lot of caffeine though, you might miss out of this effect.

The neck

Most pains would start to show themselves during the afternoon after I’d been riding all day. Such as neck pain; the riding position of leaning forward on the bike means the head is constantly tilted back, that is until I realise how long it had remained like this and come to stiffly look down. I’d then have to do some neck exercises, looking down and up and left and right to let my neck once again experience its full range of motion.

Saddle sore

Sitting up on the saddle for a while also alleviated the strain on the neck. This sitting position also gave my buttocks a change and on this trip saddle sore tormented me more than it had done on my previous trip. I confirmed upon my return that since that trip I had indeed replaced my saddle, originally riding on the one that the bike with, one that many reviewers of the bike had been keen to swap but once I had been used to riding 50-mile-long rides on it ceased causing me an issue.

This new saddle, with promising reviews, had served me well prior to my 2019 trip and I hadn’t expected it to cause me an issue, but for some reason I got saddle sore; perhaps it wasn’t solely down to the saddle but the sudden warm weather at the start of my trip putting in place the conditions for trouble. One cyclist I got chatting to commented on me wearing jeans on my ride, but it had been a chilly morning (there had been frost on my tent the morning before!) and I certainly avoided wearing them too much.

The heat

My lower legs actually suffered from heat spots (as they had done on my previous trip), likely from wearing trousers for too long, but when I set off in the cold I likely kept going for too long before stopping to strip down to shorts (my padded cycling ones often worn underneath). The heat spots would be a particular bother when intending to sleep in a sleeping bag due to the knowledge that while I might feel warm when first going to bed, it would turn cold later on. The lack of showers when wild camping for days in a row certainly didn’t help; what could I do?

I used sun cream on exposed areas but still got my nose burnt. Windburn was also experienced although this was worse on my earlier trip. Lip balm is a must; I didn’t take this on my first trip and had to buy some on route… I then lost it in one of my many pockets and had to buy some more, later to find the first!

The Back

Sitting up on the saddle, in addition to aiding my neck and nethers, also helped my back. One thing I’m currently trying to improve, as I had been prior to my trip, is my sitting posture, not only on the bike but in general. I find myself slouching quite often and it seems to me it’s due to my spine resuming the curve I’ve made it accustomed to on the bike; rather than pivoting more from the hips and waist it curves further up. Not good, and this, whilst causing me some discomfort on the bike later on in the day would cause me most trouble later on.

In my small tent there is limited space for me to stretch out, it really is a little too short for my not-particularly tall self; my head and feet reach each end if I lie flat on my back, it also lacks the hight for me to sit up without again curving my spine (hence the feat I have to accomplish to get in and out of it). But the tent is only for sleeping in and curling up is preferred when it’s chilly and cold, and there is space for that, just. However, this curled up foetal position would keep my spine in its suffering and curved state, so I would be troubled in the night between giving it some relief but feeling cold, or suffering with lower back pain but feeling warmer; I would often go through various postures in a night. I had previously come to conclude that my lower back was quite susceptible to the cold and pain would be felt there because of it. If I ever neglected to use my thin DIY camping mat (cut from a length of left-over PE foam carpet underlay), thinking the ground was soft enough, I would suffer more. The camping mat would not only smooth out any hard ridges in the ground beneath but it would provide a layer of insulation, both keeping the warmth in my body and reducing the effects of the cold ground beneath. I don’t think I experienced a single comfortable night’s sleep, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy sleeping in my tent; I woke every morning bright and early to the sound of the birds I’d listened to the evening before when I shut eye for the night, and this was all extremely satisfying. Back at home I struggle to rise naturally with the sun even when I routinely go to bed with it.

Up before sunrise in the north of Ireland

Knees

Beyond the back, neck and undercarriage, there was, towards the very end of my trip, some knee pain, something I’ve never really experienced from cycling before, although occasion I would joke with others, such as when a fellow cyclist asked me if there was anything I needed and I joked and replied with “some new knees”. Perhaps I shouldn’t have joked. The day the trouble was caused was a Sunday and I was keen to get as many miles on the last leg to Dublin as possible; I was determined it would be a 100-mile-day, but hoped it might be more since on one occasion on my previous tour I’d done a 130-mile day and I wanted to experience that again, or perhaps beat it. It wasn’t to be though. 100 miles was it. The day was running out and I was prepared to pitch tent for the night and crawl in it and sleep. It had been a fun day though. With it being a Sunday I had met with a couple of cycling clubs out for their Sunday rides. The first group passed me by while I was having a snack at the side of the road and when I rejoined after them I met with some stragglers. These I was able to keep up with on my heavily-loaded bike, using their draft to make my life easier, but I had to work for it. It gave me a boost of energy to keep up with them, something that had so far been lacking that morning (often I would have a slow start to the day but plodding along was fine in my head since I always noticed this lull would slip away by the afternoon once my body had properly woken up and got into the right gear for what I was asking of it). I kept up with this rider, even up a hill; this often surprises me since carrying all the stuff would generally make me slower than others not carrying stuff to ascend, but I seem to have quite a good pace for climbing (being small and light working in my favour here), often riders slow down more than I’d expect as if they purposely take a hill more steadily to then put in the effort on the flat. Eventually myself and this straggler caught up with the main bunch of rider who were waiting ahead at the side of the road and expecting him to pull over to meet them I took this opportunity to overtake him, buzzing with joy and joking with him that it was now my turn to over take him. Gaining the upper-hand was short lived though and soon after the whole group set off once more together and passed me by, I couldn’t keep up now.

Later on a second team caught me. These were going a little slower and immediately after they passed me I tucked in behind, looking like an ugly duckling at the back of the flock with all the bags attached around me. Eventually however we reached a gradient. It wasn’t particularly steep but it dragged on for a bit and the extra weight I was carrying held me back. A gap began to open up and even back out on the flat, once I was no longer in their wake I couldn’t keep up. The gap was only big enough for three cars, and three cars squeezed into it. I didn’t let this go amiss; I took the opportunity of the draft now caused by the new vehicles to try and catch back up, but it wasn’t to be.

Roll on the next day and all that effort I’d exerted to keep up with other riders had left me with pain in my knees. In the knee caps to be precise; it was like the time I walked smack into something at knee height in a darkened room; they felt bruised. I was still a good 30-miles from the port of Dublin, but I plodded on regardless, and this morning, having now been home a week and been out for a couple of short runs, in addition to also still riding my bike, I still feel some pain in my knees. I had a 50+ mile ride yesterday, carrying some stuff (although not quite as much as needed for a tour of Ireland!) and that’s left me with the message that, while I’m not ready for some new knees, they do need some care. No run today.

After care

I’ve looked online and pain at the front of the knees is technically referred to Anterior Knee Pain and is actually common among cyclists. While I’m certain it all stems from that long day where I pushed to keep up with faster cyclists the reality is of other contributing factors: my riding position and posture that I adopted when trying to alleviate my other aches and pains. One website explains that the issue with the knee is not with the knee itself but the muscles themselves:

Usually, it’s caused by tightness in the quads or the fibrous tissue that runs alongside the outer leg – the Iliotibial band – pulling on the patella (knee cap_. This can be down to bike fit, or tightness as a result of a lack of maintenance or overuse [such as chasing other cyclists who are quicker than you and not carrying half a camp site!] … The patella doesn’t get itself into trouble on its own… if one side [of the leg?] is tight, it pulls the patella in the wrong way, so it doesn’t track smoothly and can cause pain. Cyclists use the quads most in the downward stroke, so that’s a lot of pressure on the knee…

The advice:

Treated early, pain can be reduced quickly… Pian at the front of the knee can come from damage to the meniscus or cartilage – often that comes from trauma, but can also be from repetitive movement.

[1.] Check your bike fit…
[2.] Treat the tightness: foam rolling and stretching.

Foam rolling was given in the recent GCN video I watched about recovery and Post Ride Routines, but it’s not something I do. I once tried something similar with my feet but the sensation didn’t give me the kind of feedback akin to it being beneficial.

As for stretching, yoga is my thing but something I failed to incorporate into my trip aside from the few days rest I had when I visited family part-way (I had hoped to find somewhere – like away from the intrigued gaze of others – to do some yoga or stretches, but it didn’t happen). I recall that after my 2016 tour I felt particularly stiff, noticeably in my lower legs with calf muscles experiencing cramp, which is why I think I started incorporating yoga into my life; the combination of running and cycling would make my legs feel particularly stiff. This time however I feel strangely relaxed, as I did throughout the trip, although I haven’t gotten back into yoga proper – the issue with the knees is now telling me I should, and focus on these – even though I can still touch my toes (something I struggled to do prior to taking up yoga all those years ago).

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